Q&A: How to combat declining ore grades through technology, smart reconciliation
The declining grades of most of our world's resources is one of the biggest challenges faced by mining operations around the world today. It is not a challenge that can be removed, so rather miners must find new ways in which to mine smarter, improve extraction rates and reduce operational costs. Austmine caught up with John Hearne, CEO of Snowden to find out his thoughts on some of the best opportunities for miners to do just this. John is a mining engineer by profession, with a background in financial modeling and an in-depth knowledge of the processes, technologies, markets and business issues of the precious, ferrous and base metals mining and processing industries.
With ore grades declining on average around the world, across commodities, what should miners be doing in regards to their processing operations to address this and ensure projects are still commercially viable?
The downturn has forced mining companies to become more efficient, trying to do more with less. This has led to common adoption of strategies that were previously promoted, but largely ignored, in the boom times:
• Clients with new and existing projects have embraced optimization of mine schedules, grades, products and stockpiling strategies as a means to improve their milling schedule outcomes.
• Operations have adjusted their operating processes to minimize waste and increase productivity across their operations with fewer resources through the implementation of intelligent design.
• Customers with operations have become more interested in data and analytics solutions as a way of supplying real-time data, identifying improvement opportunities, and making better informed decisions.
• Operations (and companies) that adopt site-wide reconciliation processes, encompassing the entire mining chain from models to metal (shipped), are able to isolate issues within each segment of the chain, or division of their operation, and define appropriate action. More so, these operations can easily determine the impact of these issues beyond the ‘silo’ and apply these processes across the whole operation.
Snowden offers a variety of apps that address some of the visualization, equipment tracking and near real-time data access challenges faced by operations departments in mines. What are the benefits for miners of utilizing apps in operations, in terms of cost, productivity and improved equipment utilization?
This is a really interesting evolution of technology. Some of the benefits include:
• Low resistance to change: The fact that tablet apps are something we choose to use in our personal lives means that this change is much easier to manage, with positive rather than negative sentiment. This is very different to most other change processes.
• Ease of implementation: As apps do not have to be built into equipment hardware, additional apps can be deployed immediately and at low cost.
• Direction: Apps can provide guidance to operators on site to ensure that they are working in the right place with the right plan. They can also provide quick updates and feedback.
• Information: Apps can capture significant amounts of information about production and equipment performance. This can be used to develop insights to identify changes to improve productivity.
• Ease of use: Rather than having to scribble on paper in the wind and causing safety issues, apps can be used in a range of weather conditions safely.
• Data accuracy – Capturing data on a tablet device in the first instance allows validation rules to be applied and any potential issues to be flagged to the operator at the time the information is “fresh”.
• Data input validation and transcription: Rather than having to manually input data sometime after the work has been completed, the data is automatically captured within the system and with the right network infrastructure available in near real-time allowing for “in shift” decision-making.
With much of the obvious cost excess stripped out of mining operations now, where do miners need to turn to next? Will they need to invest in order to reduce costs further?
Yes, most of the “easy” wins have been locked in by mining companies, and they have been significant. The previous growth period had left many of those opportunities available. But most operations still have an opportunity for further improvement, but they just need to dig a little deeper and think outside the box. Those deeper productivity improvements will typically be gained by breaking down silos to optimize the overall project, not just one aspect. It is usually worth getting an outside pair of eyes to challenge the status quo. Gathering and using data from the mine and plant to provide truths about the project, and testing your hypotheses, can help to identify areas where improvement can be achieved. Only once all these avenues have been exhausted should major investment be considered. We strongly believe that the next wave of improvement will come from matching insights from experienced professionals with the large amount of data generated by mining operations. Those that combine these will be the most successful.
How important is a structured and thorough approach to mine reconciliation, given the current market conditions? What are the common mistakes made by miners with regards to their mine reconciliation and how can they be avoided?
Mining reconciliation today is rapidly being recognized as an important tool that operations use to measure performance. This is not surprising when you consider that the basis for mining reconciliation is a comparison between estimates and plans. These plans, whilst being the basis for operating the mine, are also the basis for shareholder investment, so any negative deviation from these tends to incur some form of penalty. When combined with a volatile commodity price market, the need for accurate, efficient and structured reconciliation has never been more important to provide confidence in future production. In the current scenario where mines are chasing lower grades, and are faced with falling prices and increasing management scrutiny, the ability to demonstrate knowledge of the issues impacting operational performance (through reconciliation) is defining a company’s ability to maintain shareholder value.
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Notwithstanding these drivers, many operations continue to fall for the same reconciliation traps. Principal amongst these is the siloed nature of reconciliation. Geologists, engineers, metallurgists and management often run different processes and, not surprisingly, arrive at different conclusions. At an operational level, this results in inefficiencies in time management and poor definition of viable improvement opportunities.
Previously published on Austmine.com.au.
Smarter Technologies: transforming operations with IoT
Digital technology has become a key enabler of margin improvement and an enhancer of competitiveness in the mining sector. Although the majority of the top mining businesses have already started their digital journey in some capacity, many of the smaller players are lagging behind when it comes to digital transformation.
Smart Mining with IoT
Recent analysis by Allied Market Research, which estimates that the global smart mining industry is projected to reach $24bn by 2027, relays fears that those that don't join the big players in the digital uptake of solutions like IoT, will be left behind.
“As a traditionally risk-averse industry, many mining sector stakeholders struggle to invest in new technologies without a guaranteed return on investment (ROI),” explains Matthew Margetts, Director of Sales & Marketing at Smarter Technologies – suppliers of IoT solutions to the UK’s Ministry of Defence and the Royal Air Force. “Innovative miners at all levels are using new technologies to make mining operations safer, more productive, and more cost-efficient.”
Mines are often dangerous places to work, and worker health and safety are top priorities for mining operations. Smart Mining Technology keeps track of your assets and has the potential to improve mine safety in several ways: locate people, recover machinery and reduce the risk of serious injury.
Autonomous mining vehicles have been around for nearly two decades. During this time, these vehicles have revolutionised mining by allowing humans to communicate with and control machinery remotely. In this day and age, the focus has shifted from the original autonomous mining vehicles to autonomous mining systems, which can carry out a series of integrated tasks automatically. Removing the need for humans to be on-site increases workforce safety.
The benefits of autonomous mining functions include:
- Improved safety
- Decreased incidents
- The ability to work in areas that would be too dangerous for humans
- Increased productivity
- Reduced labour costs
Predictive analysis and insights
When mining assets are connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) and a central management system, this enables operational intelligence. By analysing operational data, mining operators are better equipped to foresee and prevent any dangerous incidents from occurring. The ability to conduct predictive maintenance also means a lower risk of mechanical breakdown and failure.
Wearable technologies have become more advanced and non-invasive, making it easier to track the mining workforce, even deep underground and in remote locations. With real-time visibility of all staff, key workers can be located instantly. In the event of an emergency, response times and recovery rates are significantly improved. Along with improved safety, workforce tracking data can also be used to monitor staff attendance and identify where productivity can be increased.
A series of smart IoT sensors can measure virtually anything - from pressure to humidity, temperature, air quality, gas levels, sound and more. If the conditions in a specific area change in any predefined way, instant notifications can alert teams of potential safety risks and potentially prevent incidents before they occur.
Increase efficiency and reduced operational costs
Making mines “smart” has the effect of lowering operational costs. In a smart mine, key assets are digitised by embedding smart sensors that report data to a central system via a wireless network. Many of the same use cases of smart mining technology mentioned above not only improve mine safety, but also help to reduce operational costs.
Wireless monitoring systems that relay real-time data lower operational costs in a number of ways:
- Reduced reliance on paying human resources
- Reduced reliance on vehicles and petrol costs for data and asset collection
- No need for expensive cabling and system maintenance operations
- Maintaining critical assets more effectively increases return on investment
Having real-time visibility of mining assets allows you to track the location of your mining equipment when you need to use it. This is especially useful as self-driving machinery becomes more widely adopted in the industry. Instead of wasting time searching for various assets, you’ll be able to optimise productivity and profitability by streamlining your operations from your central management dashboard.
Automating the data gathering processes using smart technology reduces the need for time-consuming and potentially dangerous data collection. Access to real-time data is critical to optimising efficiencies and reducing costs. In contrast, by the time a worker has collected information and returned to the office, the data they have gathered is already outdated.
Maintenance and management
With real-time data connectivity and data analytics, you can optimise your mine’s maintenance schedules and production rates dynamically. With predictive analytics enabled by smart tracking and condition monitoring, you’ll be able to quickly identify required changes to predefined maintenance schedules to keep your equipment running efficiently and safely. This too avoids potential incidents that can disrupt or halt operations for weeks or months, in turn keeping the mine running and generating profits.
Although there are barriers to mines adopting new technologies, these must be overcome in order for mines to remain competitive and successful in an increasingly digital age. From improving safety to enhancing productivity and efficiency, smart mines are the future of the industry.